Science show and tell

04 December 2018

Interview with

Dr Carolin Crawford, Cambridge University; Dr Ljiljana Fruk, Cambridge University; Patrick Short, Wellcome Sanger Institute and Heterogeneous; Eleanor Drinkwater, University of York

Let's meet the panel! Chris Smith was joined by Cambridge University astronomer Carolin Crawford, University of York animal behaviour scientist Eleanor Drinkwater, Cambridge University chemist Ljiljana Fruk and geneticist Patrick Short from the Wellcome Sanger Insitute and start up Heterogeneous. First up, Eleanor tells Chris about, in her opinion, the most adorable animal....

Eleanor - I have brought in a photo of the most adorable creature on the planet which many of you may not realize is actually the woodlouse. So if you flip over a woodlouse on its underside when they are pregnant the female actually has a pouch in which it will hold its babies before giving birth to them a little bit like a tiny tiny wombat.

Chris - And you can see this?

Eleanor - Yes.

Chris - A picture! Well this is a huge woodlouse, this has been blown up probably about 20 times, 50 times. So yes there's a little pouch on the underside between the front legs and there's lots of little they look like little white maggots but those are the babies. How long will they do there for?

Eleanor - Probably depends on the species but they wait until they have the first malt and so then they're big enough that they won't dry out as soon as they hit the outside environment and then eject the babies and they have to fend for themselves. Although they usually kind of stay near the adults because the babies actually enjoy eating the adults poo.

Chris - I thought you were going to say they enjoy eating the adults! Eleanor welcome to the program. Good to have you with us. Also here Carolin Crawford who's an astronomer at Cambridge University's Institute of Astronomy. And you've brought in something for us to see virtually.

Carolin - Well yes it’s a do it yourself show and tell. I bring you two planets. You have to go and look for them in the night sky. And it's just a really good time to remind people what's up in the night sky especially northern hemisphere. You've got the winter, it's dark late and it's dark early in the afternoon, and in the mornings. When you’re going home and it's dark. Look for Mars in the night sky over towards the southwest. It's brilliant. It's red. It's low down the horizon is really bright you cannot miss it and it'll be up till about 11 o'clock at night.

And then there are mornings, if you're a relatively early riser for about three hours before the sunrise you can’t miss it, apart from the moon it’s the brightest thing the night sky. Low down towards the south east direction so you can see Mars and you can see Venus either edge of the night. And just one more thing. My favorite meteor shower is coming up and it's the Geminids. They peak for a couple of weeks, 13th 14th of December. I love this one it's quite predictable, go out late at night preferably after the half moon’s gone down and you begin to see them. They peak around two o'clock in the morning but you don’t have to stay up that late you can start to see them really towards after about 9 o'clock at night. And when the meteors come they're quite slow and they're quite bright. And so you can’t miss them. So that's coming to a sky near you very soon.

Chris - Do they correspond to a cloud of dust that's just now patch of the solar system so that as the earth goes round in its orbit it sort of sweeps through that cloud of dust and that's why we see them every year at this time?

Carolin - Yeah well this is a particular trail of debris that's left behind a little asteroid called 3200 pantheon. It's disintegrating and it’s got this cloud that's followed its orbit. And every year we go through it and the same time of year. And then you get all these little bits of grit falling into the atmosphere and just producing these wonderful shooting stars and it's all happening about you know 100 kilometers up.

Chris - Wonderful. Carolin thank you. Welcome to the program as well. Patrick short is a geneticist from the Wellcome Sanger Institute. He also is the CEO of a startup which is called Heterogeneous. Interesting name for a genetics startup, what does it do?

Patrick - So it helps people learn more about their genetics and health and also it gives them greater control over their data. So it allows them to control who gets to access it and what it's used for.

Chris - And when did it start, the company?

Patrick - About a year and a half ago.

Chris - And how does it make money?

Patrick - So researchers use this data for all sorts of purposes and actually there are a lot of companies already that sell people's data they just don't realize it. So what we do instead is allow people to sell it on their own terms or to participate for free if they already have a disorder. For instance a lot of patients are just mainly keen to get their data out there so it can be used and get closer to a cure.

Chris - I thought Facebook had the angle on this?

Patrick -  They're certainly trying. So are Google and everyone else. But we're hoping we can give people more control.

Chris -  Have you brought anything with you?

Patrick - I did, I brought a little stuffed animal actually. It's a water bear - a tardigrade. One of the things that got me really excited about biology in the first place so this little animal can survive radioactive bombs, it can survive being dried out and frozen then heated up thousands of degrees, no matter what you throw at it basically it still survives. I always thought it was quite amazing that an animal has figured out how to survive such extremes. I think we're still from a genetics perspective trying to figure out how it does all these things but it's quite a cool little creature.

Chris - And at last but not least Ljiljana Fruk is from Cambridge University. She's a chemist and she has a penchant for nanotech and biotechnology as well. You have got an array of tubes, you've brought in a stereotypical chemist’s rack of tubes. What's in there?

Ljiljana - I thought I need to show what chemists are still about, and that’s tubes. So I do have a selection of some of my nanomaterials that we prepared in the lab. So I have carbon diamonds that get really people excited all the time. And unfortunately they look like a bit grey.

Chris - I don’t mean to rain on your parade or anything Ljiljana. But this just looks like you poured some milk in to be honest!

Ljiljana - But if I tell you these nanodiamonds were made in a huge explosion in a special chamber and they are used for biosensing of small parts of cells, you would be a little bit more impressed.

Chris - How did you make them?

Ljiljana - So we actually buy them from the company that makes them in the big explosion chambers, but we modify their surfaces so we need to make them stable and adjustable to enter the cells. So there’s a lot of chemistry out there.

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